How do you recruit and keep great volunteers?

If you have a growing church, no doubt this is a growing concern. At Watermarke, we have grown from around 500 to 5,000 in 5 years. And while that is certainly exciting, it comes with several challenges. Volunteer recruitment and retention is toward the top of the list. During our fastest growing years, keeping up with volunteer needs was an overwhelming task. If you were to look around our church today, however, you would see:

  1. Children’s ministries full of women AND men, most serving weekly, leading small groups and connecting with kids and their parents in meaningful relationships.
  2. Student ministry environments with men and women serving weekly who also attend multiple weekend retreats and summer camps with their students. Many use a portion of their vacation time to be there.
  3. Nearly as many MEN as women serving with children and students.
  4. Both churched and unchurched people helping park cars, seat guests, execute our services, and answer questions.
  5. In some areas, more volunteers than is required. In other areas, a wait-list to serve.
  6. An annual volunteer retention rate well over 90%.

As church leaders (or leaders of any volunteer-dependent organization), we know volunteer recruitment and retention is a top priority. We are always looking for new and innovative ways to capture the hearts of the disengaged while keeping the hearts of those already participating. It’s a challenge. But there is a solution.

Luckily, the answer to volunteer recruitment AND retention is the same – A Dynamic Volunteer Experience. Creating a dynamic volunteer experience is the ultimate key to unlocking the volunteer recruitment and retention puzzle. In fact, a dynamic volunteer experience almost self-recruits and retains! Of course, creating a dynamic volunteer experience is easier said than done.

At Watermarke, we certainly have not cracked the code on volunteer engagement, but we have learn a few important things that have become centerpieces in our volunteer experience. And they seem to be working…

1. Relationally dependent programming.

Not only does a relationally driven ministry environment retain more children and students, it also retains more volunteers. Volunteers who are relationally connected to those they serve and serve along side stick. No surprise, but at Watermarke, that is by design.

Therefore, anything we can do to deepen the relationship the better. Getting volunteers to serve weekly isn’t an issue when there’s a relational connection. Getting volunteers to attend weekend retreats and camps isn’t a problem when there’s a relational connection. Getting men to serve with children and students is much easier when there is a relational connection.

QUESTION: Is your volunteer experience relationally dependent or independent?

2. Vision connection.

People want their time to count, so when we can connect a volunteer’s role to the vision and mission of the organization, they stick. At Watermarke, every volunteer understands their role NOT based on what they do, but why they do it. If your volunteers know the why, they won’t say bye. Okay, that’s cheesy, but good for twitter or a bottom line!

QUESTION: Do your volunteers know why their role matters?

3. Publicly celebrate wins.

People want their time to count, AND people want to win. Not necessarily in a competitive way, but every volunteer wants to know they are making a difference. A ministry that clearly defines and articulates a “win” AND consistently celebrates wins more easily recruits new and retains old volunteers. The reason is simple: People want to be a part of winning teams.

At Watermarke, we take time every week to publicly celebrate wins in every pre-service environment meeting. And, we celebrate wins from OTHER ministries, too, because we are all on the same team. We publicly thank volunteers. We privately thank volunteers. We write thank you notes every week to volunteers. All in the name of celebration, because volunteers want to know they are making a difference (i.e. winning).

QUESTION: Are you celebrating wins with your volunteers?

4. Experience in the little things.

If you want your volunteers to be raving fans (and you do, because they are your best recruiting tool), then they must LOVE their volunteer experience. We treat our volunteers very well, because we know that adds to their experience. We also know it makes non-volunteers a little jealous. I know – a church causing the sin of jealously. But it’s worth it!

We feed them breakfast every week. Volunteers are the only people in the church with access to coffee. We give them new, cool volunteer t-shirts every year. We produce awesome jackets and hoodies they can purchase at cost (and most of them do). We make great use of their time by being overly prepared. We make it easy on their children by offering an experience for them while their parents are serving. We make it fun – not just for the attendees, but also for the volunteers.

The little details matter, because ultimately the details make the experience.

QUESTION: Are your volunteers raving fans or warm, obligated bodies?

5. Refuse the 80/20 rule.

Or in some cases, the 90/10 rule. In most organizations, all the volunteer work is accomplished by a small percentage of the people. Many of us have been that “people” before. It’s nice to feel needed, but it eventually burns out volunteers and creates a less than dynamic experience.

Even worse, it also robs others of an opportunity to serve. If one volunteer is filling four roles, that takes away three potential spots for three people who need to experience serving. At Watermarke, we’ve made a habit of NOT allowing volunteers to serve in too many places. We have many times asked volunteers to take a break. Raving volunteers love to volunteer, so at times it would be easier to just fill holes with people already engaged. Guilt is a powerful motivator in the short-term. But long-term, this creates problems and removes opportunities for others.

QUESTION: Are you allowing too small a portion of your population to experience serving?

When we create a dynamic volunteer experience, we create a self-recruiting and retention system full of raving fan volunteers who can’t help but spread the virus of volunteerism across the organization. Sure, maybe we could use guilt or other motivators to get volunteers, but only by creating a dynamic volunteer experience can we recruit and retain at the level we all desperately need and desire.

How else have you created a dynamic volunteer experience? I’d love to know so we can make Watermarke a better place to serve, too! Leave a comment and pass this along to friends so we can all get better.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Joe Davis says:

    This is great Gavin. In our ministry, we need/utilize volunteers all the time for our local mission teams. Retention is always a challenge and we want them to feel like they are serving with a purpose/vision connection. Finding a way to have them experience the “little things” is a great idea. I will be forwarding this out for my leadership team to chew on. Thanks!

    • Gavin Adams says:

      Thanks, Joe. I’d love to hear what you leadership team comes back with! I’m sure collectively we can all get better by sharing what we learn.

  • Dennis says:

    #4 is pure GOLD! With resources at a premium that’s a challenging one too. BUT with volunteers being such an important part of the mission, it’s resources well spent! Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Gavin Adams says:

      Dennis, thanks. I can fully appreciate having resource constraints. I spent a good deal of time leading Watermarke with very limited resources, which is why focusing on the little things mattered so much. We could not do everything we wanted to do, but we made sure to dedicate some resources toward the volunteer experience. In fact, I would argue reducing resources in other areas might be a solution worth considering to better fund the volunteer experience!

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